"April is the cruelest month" reads the opening line of T.S. Eliot's celebrated 1922 poem "The Waste Land." For the literary culture of the United States and much of the rest of the world as well, this year that distinction belongs to the month of May. In that single month four masters of the printed word passed from the scene. Two practiced the craft of history: Bernard Lewis, the most distinguished historian of the Middle East in the years after World War II, and Richard Pipes, the most distinguished historian of Russia and the Soviet Union in that same period. The third, Tom Wolfe, created, in the 1960s, with his exuberant, highly personal exploration of colorful corners of American life, a distinct approach to non-fiction known as the "new journalism." He went on to write several novels, one of which, The Bonfire of the Vanities, qualifies as an American classic. The fourth literary giant, Philip Roth, was the most productive writer of serious fiction in the post-1945 era and was, with Saul Bellow and John Updike, one of the three leading American novelists of the second half of the 20th century—and in Roth's case into the 21st.
The loss of these towering figures, with their immense contributions to literary and intellectual life, is sad. It is also alarming, because they have no obvious successors. While fine historians of the world beyond the United States are at work today—Yale's Paul Kennedy and Princeton's Stephen Kotkin come to mind—and while the several authors of the multi-volume Oxford History of the United States have given us comprehensive, well-written accounts of American society, the American economy, and American politics in different periods of the nation's history, writers with the intellectual scope and literary grace that Lewis and Pipes brought to their studies, and capacious bodies of work that they produced, are hard to find. Nor does any journalist or novelist today approach the stature and the impact that Wolfe and Roth had.
May 2018 thus feels like the end of an era in the history of American and Western culture. To the extent that this is so, what accounts for it? At least two features of contemporary society make it difficult for the United States, and other Western countries, to produce 21st-century versions of Lewis, Pipes, Wolfe, and Roth: the state of the university, and the dominant methods of communication.
Lewis and Pipes made their careers in major American research universities, Lewis at Princeton (after moving, in 1974, from the University of London) and Pipes at Harvard. Younger versions of such scholars would not be welcome in institutions of higher education today. For one thing, historical studies now emphasize the everyday lives of marginalized or persecuted groups rather than the sweeping histories of high culture and high politics that Lewis and Pipes wrote. For another, the university has become highly politicized, with the orthodoxy tilting sharply to the left. Lewis and Pipes were politically conservative: Lewis served as an informal advisor to the administration of George W. Bush and Pipes held a position on the National Security Council during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Their political inclinations did not affect their main scholarly works, which were based on extensively gathered and scrupulously marshalled documentary evidence. The two were interested in broad historical questions rather than narrowly political ones: in Lewis's case why the Arab world, once the most advanced civilization on the planet, had failed to modernize and why, in the contemporary period, religion had come to play a far larger role in public life in the Middle East than in the West; for Pipes, especially in his 1974 classic Russia Under the Old Regime, why Europe's largest country remained persistently less developed economically and more autocratic politically than its neighbors to the west. Today they would not be forgiven for their political heresies or indeed for failing to infuse their scholarship with a particular set of values drawn from contemporary politics—values that they did not share.
Wolfe and Roth managed to have careers outside the academy, but such independence is now difficult to achieve. Wolfe had a career in journalism, writing for a now-vanished newspaper, The New York Herald Tribune, and for an earlier version of New York magazine. The digital revolution has laid waste to journalism, which would not now support a career such as Wolfe's. In the 21st century writers must increasingly turn to universities for positions that provide both a living wage and time to write, in the form of sinecures in creative writing programs or English departments. These two novelists would have difficulty finding a home in either. Wolfe was routinely identified as being politically on the Right. In fact, his writing wasn't particularly political, at least not directly. He wrote primarily as a satirist, but the targets of his satire were often groups favored by the campus Left and thus sacrosanct in academic precincts. Roth, by contrast, was a man of the (moderate) Left; but he also made it a point to violate taboos, which is not the route to acceptance in the easily offended academy of the 21st century. The book that made him famous, Portnoy's Complaint, published in 1969, scandalized much of the country with its sexual explicitness. Today it seems relatively tame, but the attitude toward social convention and literature that lay behind it would cause trouble for the author if he presented himself as a candidate for the role of writer-in-residence, or some similar position, in an institution of higher learning in 2018.
Modern technologies of communication also make the emergence of 21st-century versions of Lewis, Pipes, Wolfe, and Roth unlikely. The present-day social media, which favor very short, attention-getting messages that are nonetheless time-consuming to compose because their creators emit so many every day, scarcely conduce to the creation of long, careful, complicated books, taking years to write, of the kind that the four authors produced in the 20th century. Whatever else may be said about Twitter and Facebook, they are not going to yield successors to Shakespeare and Gibbon, let alone the four departed literary masters. Nor will social media encourage their devoted users to read the literary classics of the past.
Still, none of the four is known to have had a Facebook page or a Twitter feed. Those forms of communication came along when they had reached, or were approaching, the end of their careers. It was another technology, one that arrived in the middle of the 20th century, that separates these men from those who have come after them. The advent of television made for a revolution in communications deeper and broader than the changes social media have caused. It did so by replacing the word with the image at the center of communication. From Johannes Gutenberg's invention of moveable type in 1439 and the Protestant Reformation that, beginning with Martin Luther's theological rebellion in 1517, encouraged mass literacy, until the worldwide use of the cathode ray tube after 1950, the printed word dominated Western culture.
Born in 1916, 1923, 1930, and 1933 respectively, Lewis, Pipes, Wolfe, and Roth passed their formative years before the age of television. The electronic medium to which they had access was radio, where words—spoken words—dominate even more thoroughly than they do print because, unlike books, newspapers, and magazines, radio does not provide supplementary illustrations. Moreover, as my wife, Anne Mandelbaum, who grew up with radio but not television has noted, radio encourages the cultivation of the skills necessary for vivid writing because it requires the listener to imagine the settings in which the conversations and the narratives to which he or she is listening are taking place. All succeeding generations have grown up, and lived, in a world that not only bombards them with images but sends, in different ways, the implicit message that images matter more than words do.
The passing of Bernard Lewis, Richard Pipes, Tom Wolfe, and Philip Roth thus marks the end of the era—or rather the end of the legacy of the era—in which words reigned supreme. In a sense, the world has returned to a version of the premodern era, in which coins, icons, paintings and other image-bearing artifacts commanded the attention of the then-largely-illiterate public. The potential long-term consequences of this transition go far beyond the contributions to the culture, large as they are, of these four men. Because complicated ideas and the richness of human life, including the way individual human beings experience it, can only be fully conveyed in words, this broad development may portend a crippling loss for civilization itself.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies, a member of the editorial board of The American Interest, and the author, most recently, of Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era (Oxford University Press).